According to the critics, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's crusade to make women remove their face veils when they take the citizenship oath is despicable beyond measure. It is a direct attack on religious rights and freedom of expression, as well as an insulting effort to impose a dress code on women. At worst, it's nothing more than naked pandering to the lowest common denominator. At best, it's a distraction from the serious issues that ought to define this election.
"It's not an issue that is germane to the future of this country. It's a trivial issue," National Post/Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne argued on a CBC Television panel last week, after the French-language election debate in which the niqab issue set off the biggest fireworks of the night.
In Quebec, niqabs are anything but trivial. Legislation introduced by the Liberal government in June would ban face coverings for anyone giving or receiving public services. The province's leading politicians overwhelmingly support the ban, as does the public. "It's clear to me that the niqab is not religious, it's cultural," said Denis Coderre, the Montreal mayor (and former federal Liberal bigwig and immigration minister). The main criticism of the proposed bill is that it doesn't go far enough.
It's a tale of deux solitudes. Inside Quebec, feminists and progressives are dismayed by the niqab. They see it as an attack on the collective right to be free from oppressive religious symbols. In the rest of Canada, feminists and progressives are enraged at the Conservatives' attack on a woman's right to choose.
It's true that on a practical level, the niqab issue is more symbolic than real. Among the many thousands of people who take the citizenship oath each year, only a handful are veiled Muslim women. They are already required to show their faces, in private, to prove their identities. The federal court has ruled that the government's ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies is unlawful. The Conservative government's decision to appeal the ruling looks like grandstanding.
But if there is one issue that strikes a nerve with Canadians, this is it. Public opposition to the niqab is deep, and wide. A recently released Leger poll, commissioned by the government and conducted in March, found that more than four out of five people – 82 per cent – supported the Conservatives' position that there is no place for niqabs in citizenship court. In Quebec, the figure was 93 per cent.
Are all these people closet bigots? That's an awfully hard case to make. The majority isn't always right, of course – that's why we have strong protections for minority rights. But the people who argue that the niqab debate is irrelevant are wrong. It is really a debate about our values, and equality, and the limits of tolerance. How far are we prepared to go to accommodate religious and cultural differences? At what point must newcomers be prepared to accommodate themselves to Canadian society and values?
As the magnificent Chantal Hébert reminded Mr. Coyne on CBC the other night, the niqab debate is anything but trivial – despite what pundits in Toronto think. The debate about accommodation and values will last far beyond this election. It will be among the biggest issues of our future.
When it comes to matters of Canadian values and security, it's increasingly the Conservatives – not the Liberals or New Democratic Party – whose position resonates with most Canadians. Should dual citizens who are convicted of terrorism be stripped of their Canadian citizenship and deported? The Conservatives say yes, and passed a law to that effect. The NDP, the Liberals, and many other critics say no, because two-tier citizenship is a slippery slope, as well as being unconstitutional. Last week, they stripped the citizenship of the man who led the so-called Toronto 18 bombing plot. The timing was nakedly opportunistic. The public overwhelmingly approves.
As for the thorny issue of the niqab, I'm torn. I believe that Canada is strong and confident enough to tolerate a few women in face coverings. I also believe that the niqab has no place in Canada, and that women who wear them should be strongly discouraged (but not, under most circumstances, barred) from doing so. Symbols matter. And this one matters more than most.